An Outsiders’ View In
- The Taragaon Museum houses photographs taken by expatriates who have visited the Kathmandu Valley, and these works offer a different perspective on the city than the ones most Nepalis are used to
Jun 13, 2014-
When foreign tourists first started arriving in Nepal in the sixties, there were no city maps. Without adequate reference materials, these foreigners had to create their own maps of the Kathmandu Valley, known as "the Hidden Valley" for its esoteric, inaccessible roads and inhabitants. At the newly unveiled Taragaon Museum in Boudha, an effort is underway to show the historical and artistic documents produced in tribute to Nepal by foreigners deeply invested in its cultural heritage.
The Taragaon Museum is the ideal place for this historic storage. The name evokes a “star village” (from tara and gaon) and is a nostalgic term for most Nepalis and foreigners. Forty years ago, Taragaon was a backpacker hostel for itinerants traversing the Hippie Trail from Afghanistan to Nepal. While many foreigners passed through, others settled down in the Valley, taking up jobs from development to engineering. They scrupulously researched, photographed, and wrote about the new country they were discovering.
In a 35,000 sq. metre complex, the Taragaon Museum showcases these works from expatriates with “an outsider’s view in.” The museum’s collection includes maps, architectural drawings, and photography from over 30 foreign contributors. Grouped by themes like 19th and 20th century photography, the subject matter is solely Nepali, even when the artists are not.
The concept for the museum emerged in December 2009 from Indian businessman Arun Saraf, owner of the Taragaon Regency Hotels, which leases out the space to the Hyatt Regency Hotel complex the museum sits within. Sarof searched for various ideas for the space-even considering a boutique hotel, at one point-but a German architect Niels Gutschow, proposed a museum after working on the restoration of the Patan museum. Gutschow’s links in the expatriate community allowed him to curate the collection from his own personal network in Nepal. Working as an architect and conservationist in Nepal for many decades, he simply asked his friends to sell him their works.
"The focus is clearly the view of outsiders who admire and even venerate the heritage of the Kathmandu Valley," Gutschow says. Foreigners made meticulous records of the hidden valley because everything was new and different for them. He says a Nepali might have noticed the details but never documented them because it was always there for them to see. "You don’t possibly value what is part of your everyday life. The view of the outsiders brings certain aspects to the fore which otherwise remain unnoticed," Gutschow says.
One such outsider, American photographer Kevin Bubriski, arrived in the late 1970s as an engineer with the Peace Corps. His portraits, which adorn the museum walls, break away from the ‘tourist gaze’ so emblematic of the early photos of Nepalis. Sociologist John Urry describes the tourist gaze as a form of heritage commodification, whereby locals behave according to racial and cultural stereotypes conforming to a foreigner’s expectations. Bubriski’s departure from this form reveals a deeper immersion into Nepali culture and society. As with many of the foreign artists, Nepal became an adopted country for him-not just a stopping point-and Bubriski aimed to show Nepalis as they were instead of through a false representation.
Although born in Nepal, museum manager Roshan Mishra notes that Bubriski’s images surprised him and showed him sides of Nepal he’d never seen. “When the camera came to Nepal,” he says, “it came through foreigners, so that was the first time all these images were taken." Foreigners captured a period that Nepalis themselves didn’t have records of. In a way, this filled an important gap in Nepal’s historical documentation.
Rather than seeing the collection as a foreign interpretation of Nepal, Gutschow notes that the contributors are paying homage to its artistic splendour. "Those who worked in Nepal are more than friends of the country," Gutschow says. "They truly love Nepal and everybody felt that giving something back is a duty and honour. It is a tribute."
Even the museum architecture is a tribute to Nepal. Austrian architect Carl Pruscha was inspired by the barrel-vaulted shelter buildings along the ghats in places like Sankhamul. Considered by Mishra “one of the oldest modern-looking buildings in Kathmandu,” the architecture syncretises modern European and traditional Nepali styles.
Pruscha’s work repeats three geometric shapes: circles, triangles, and squares. “The most amazing thing is the drum roofs-the circular roofs,” says Mishra. “This is the first time it’s been done in Nepal.” The red brickwork is also reminiscent of traditional Nepali homes relying on brick architecture. Even the bricks have a foreign influence, though: they’re from the first brick factory started by the Chinese government in Bhaktapur. "Obviously, if you look at the concept, some of the features are very traditionally Nepali, such as the interior arches, which are low-lying, along with small roofs," Mishra says. But the atmosphere of the museum remains foreign.
With seven buildings, three amphitheatres, one café, one reference library, and a restaurant in the works, the Taragaon Museum bills itself more as a "garden of art.” And although Nepalese artists are not contributors to the permanent collection, the museum reserves some buildings for rotating contemporary art exhibitions from Nepalis. Additionally, two buildings house shops selling handicrafts and local arts from Nepali artists. The space will also hold cultural events and conferences so Taragaon can develop into a creative meeting place for dialogue by attracting anyone interested in cultural production.
Currently, the museum has difficulty attracting Nepalis, but Mishra says the foreign aesthetic is relevant to Nepalis who can learn from the outside in. The outsider perception of Nepal is also critical for a country whose largest industry is tourism, but it does elicit questions about cultural preservation. Who preserves Nepali history better? Is the perspective accurate? And why should Nepalis care? For the museum staff, the aim is simply about appreciating the rich heritage of Nepal. According to Gutschow, “The exhibition intends to constitute a tribute to the outstanding urban culture of the Kathmandu Valley. The Nepalese audience will probably experience an ‘aha’ effect to realise the richness of that heritage.”
Museum Hours: 10 am - 5 pm from Sunday-Friday; Closed on Saturdays and holidays. Entrance: Free
Facebook.com/TaragaonMuseum, Contact: 014491234, Ext. 5926
Published: 19-06-2014 18:43